Many things were different in times before COVID-19. Love and food for instance. The lockdowns hit us hard. The involuntary confinement engendered myriad anxieties and fears. Let's keep love aside for the moment and concentrate on food.
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The lurking shadow of fatal contagion kept out the domestics- bai or the man who cooked. The restaurants were shut down literally at the stroke of midnight and when they were allowed to reopen, it was only the daredevils with suicidal streak who stepped out to dine. This is what has brought about a paradigm shift in the hospitality business. The age of ultra-deluxe takeaway has dawned.
There was a takeaway business before the dreaded virus started proliferating, but truth be told even the hyped and trendy outlets reminded one of Cinderella before her transformation. These eateries- holes in the wall or run from the home kitchen were indispensable for DINKYs and Yuppies when parties were organised or unexpected guests dropped in. The 'heat and eat' seekh kebabs, the deg of biryani prepared by a 'heritage chef' suddenly rendered unemployed. There were as many backstories as outlets to mythologise the banal.
But this isn't what we are talking about. Those who live by cakes can't survive on bread alone. If they couldn't go to their favourite restaurants, why couldn't the food from epicurean Mecca travel to their homes? Under normal circumstances, reservations had always been hard to dine or entertain guests at iconic Bukhara and Dum Pukht.
As is well known, the Michelin Guide skips India but these were destinations for visiting royalty, celebrities, power lunching politicians. This is where the Presidents of the USA ate so did the Japanese Crown Prince. Special menus prepared for them made signature dishes aspirational for the rest- meaning who could afford to splurge on the fare that was a minor prince's ransom. The multi-starred hotel chain that owns these brands was the first to spot the opportunity. It mailed to a very select clientele table d hote (truncated) menus listing meaty and vegetarian choices that could be safely delivered (contactless) at the doorstep. Others imitated flatteringly.
Some 'Master Chefs' informed potential patrons on the internet how a bespoke fine dining experience was being curated for them. The prices remained jaw-dropping for the upwardly mobile middle classes, but minus the taxes levied in a restaurant, the 'takeaway' rates were steal-worthy.
Actually, this wasn't just a 'take away' experience; it was 'delivered at your doorstep' with panache. The food arrived gift wrapped and appeared exotic. You can now order not only Awadhi, Kashmiri, Hyderabadi delicacies but also indulge in pasta drizzled with white morels gratings, imported tenderloin and Iberian pork.
The delivery in some cases was dazzling. The Punjab Grill sent food in micro safe Tupperware or Borosil that you didn't have to worry about trashing or recycling. These were yours to keep. And, let's not forget even the very rich have a keen eye for value for money. This gesture to pamper and retain valued guests was more heart-warming than flowers that accompanied the greeting card.
The guardians of tradition opted for handcrafted earthenware, elegant wooden crates draped in colourful fabric. 'Passports' and gourmet clubs have other mouth-watering offers. From sushi prepared with all ingredients imported from Japan to Mediterranean specialities, there isn't any dearth of temptations. The more enterprising found a way to wriggle out of stringent excise laws. Hotels could repackage the delivery as a gift hamper and include a bottle of wine.
Friends and fellow foodies tell us that this emerging trend is not confined to the capital and NCR. Other metros and mini-metros are getting their jaded palates tickled.
We only hope that this ripple creates a wave that doesn't subside for some time. The ultra deluxe best practices will filter down inevitably. The crumbs that fall down from the high table will be valued as rich pickings by the not-so-fortunate.
Written by Delhi-based food historian Pushpesh Pant. The story has been lightly edited for style.
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